The radical roots of International Women’s Day, before it was usurped by capitalism

It was initially celebrated as International Working Women’s day and was primarily observed in socialist countries and by communist parties, until UN adopted it as International Women’s Day in 1975

PTI Photo
PTI Photo


The ruling class follows a simple method to blunt the symbols of working class and revolutionary movements. It adopts a symbol, severs it from its revolutionary roots, emptying out the revolutionary content in the process, and then repacks it by investing new meanings more suited to their own interest and agenda before presenting it to the wider public. The International Women’s day has become one such symbol which has been creatively and successfully adopted by the capitalist ruling classes all across the world, and has been subjected to the logic of capitalism.

The roots of International Women’s Day lie in the working class and the international socialist movement. It was initially celebrated as International Working Women’s day and was primarily observed in socialist countries and by communist parties, until the United Nations decided to adopt the day as International Women’s Day in 1975. With this adoption by the United Nations, the process of erasing the radical roots and hollowing out the revolutionary possibilities associated with the day began, which just got transformed into another day of consumption memorabilia.

It is not surprising that the decision to observe/celebrate International Women’s Day was taken by the United Nations in the year 1975. The year marked the end of the global counter-culture movement which had brought vast range of issues like war, vegetarianism, nuclear weapons, feminism, environmentalism and sexuality etc. into the public discourse. The anarchist mode of addressing significant issues made these things ‘cool’, which was later appropriated by capitalism.

As Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter have argued in their bestseller, The Rebel Sell (2004), the counter culture gave way to consumer culture as non-conformism associated with the counter cultural movement was adopted by the capitalist market and made into yet another commodity, with a notion of ‘ethical consumption’.

Just like the imagery of Che Guevara, an ardent critique of capitalism and American imperialism, was adopted by the fashion industry to capitalize on the huge ‘cool/rebel’ market, the International Working Women’s day was adopted by the United Nations and simultaneously by corporate houses to capitalize on the ‘feminist’ market.

So today, special discounts are offered to women in restaurants and malls on lifestyle products on 8th March. The same corporate houses, which are reluctant to ensure gender parity in their organizations and a sexual harassment-free workplace, have today become the sponsors of International Women’s’ Day.

In this context, when the meaning of International Working Women’s Day has been reversed, it becomes important to explore and bring out the actual history of International Women’s day with the hope that the radical roots once associated with this day can once again be restored.

The first ever women’s day was organized in the United States of America on 28th February 1909 by the Socialist party of America (SPA). The initiative to organize a national women day was taken by Theresa Malkiel, a Ukraine-born American labour and suffrage activist, who as the head of Woman's National Committee of the SPA, was of the view that a separate front was needed to raise women’s issues.

The objective of organizing a women’s day was to bring to the fore issues related to women suffrage, rights of immigrants, miserable wages, unsanitary working conditions and long work days. This first observance of National Women’s Day in the United States was followed up by the historic New York shirtwaist strike of 1909, which primarily involved Jewish women working in the garment industry.

After the huge success of the National Women’s day in the US, the international socialist movement decided to organize a women’s day on a global scale.

The decision to organize an annual women’s day under the slogan “the vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism” was taken during the second meet of the International Socialist Women Conference (first organized in 1907) held in Copenhagen in 1910. The proposal came from German delegate Luise Zietz, was seconded by Clara Zetkin and was accepted unanimously.

The resolution on Women’s day read: “In agreement with the class-conscious political and trade union organizations of the proletariat of their respective countries, socialist women of all nationalities have to organize a special Women’s Day, which must, above all, promote the propaganda of female suffrage. This demand must be discussed in connection with the whole woman’s question, according to the socialist conception”.

The date 19th March was chosen as the day for its historic association with women’s issues during the 1848 German revolution. It was on 19th March 1848 that the Prussian king gave in to the demands of organized German people and also promised to extend suffrage to women, which was not kept. The day before, that is 18th March, was also the anniversary of Paris Commune.

The first ever International Working Women’s Day was celebrated on 19th March 1911 and over a million women in several European countries participated in it. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, over 300 demonstrations of took place, with women carrying red flags and banners celebrating the 40th anniversary of Paris Commune and demanding right to vote as well as better working conditions.

One of the first ever pamphlets to be distributed calling upon women to join Women’s Day read: “Comrades! Working Women and Girls! March 19 is your day. It is your right. Behind your demand stands Social Democracy, organized labour. The Socialist women of all countries are in solidarity with you. March 19 should be your day of glory!”

While 19th March became the Women’s Day in Europe, Americans continued to observe it on the last Sunday of February. The day was then shifted to 8th March in 1913, and became a day signifying working women’s militancy.

With the beginning of the First World War, the Women’s Day celebration became intrinsically involved with anti-war demonstrations. On 7th March 1915, Clara Zetkin organized a huge demonstration of women in Berne, Switzerland against the war. During this event, a manifesto was released which was addressed to ‘The Women and Proletariat’ and declared that the “workers have nothing to gain from the war. They have everything to lose, everything, everything that is dear to them”. The manifesto also exhorted “women to take action to win peace”.

In Turin, Italy, women took to the streets on Women’s Day in 1917 to protest against the war and hung posters in working class neighbourhoods addressed to women. The posters said: “Hasn't there been enough torment from this war? It is time for us to act in the name of suffering humanity. Our cry is 'down with arms!' We are part of the same family. We want peace”

However, the moment which solidified 8th March as the International Working Women’s day were the events that transpired on 8th March 1917 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. On that day, women textile workers came out on the street to demonstrate against the Russian imperial regime in protest against the war, food crisis, harsh working conditions and exploitation.

This protest later spread to all major industrial centres and paved the way for the February Revolution, followed by the great October revolution. One of the slogans of this protest, ‘Bread and Peace’, also became the slogan of the October revolution.

The importance of the events of 8th March, 1917 was recognized by several leaders and architects of the Bolshevik revolution. Soviet leader and intellectual Alexandra Kollontai called it the day on which “the Russian women raised the torch of proletarian revolution and set the world on fire”, while Leon Trotsky called it the day which “inaugurated the revolution”.

Later, this day, with the efforts of Clara Zetkin, Alexandra Kollontai and Vladimir Lenin, was declared as an official holiday in the Soviet Union in 1922.

The Communist party of China also began to observe 8th March as Women’s Day in 1922.

In February 1936, following the victory of the Left coalition known as the Popular Front in Spain, communist leader Dolores Ibarruri led a huge demonstration of women on 8th March demanding that the coalition government take strong measures against the rise of fascism in Europe.

After the end of the Second World War, several newly formed socialist countries adopted the day as a holiday and it was mainly observed by communist parties in non-socialist countries.

Even though the observation of Women’s Day in the United States is associated with the emergence of the second wave of feminism in 1967, Harvard historian Temma Kaplan in her article ‘On the Socialist Origins of International Women's Day’ points out that “it was revived in the United States by a women's group at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle, which included daughters of American Communists”.

The International Working Women’s Day was since its inception a political event. It was meant to highlight not only class and gender, but also race-based exploitation of women at the workplace, family and broader society.

It is indeed a classic case of irony that what once was a symbol of anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchy, anti-racial and working class militancy has today been turned into a day of de-politicized events linked with consumption and celebration of capitalism.

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